Masked traits, their survival, emergence and absorption

A terminological issue arises whenever we talk about the American culture. What so often happens is that what I call the Norwegian culture gets put forward as the American culture an anything deviating from that is an exception. For example, Native American, Latino, Cajun, French, Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, and so on. Anyone who questions my inclusion of any of these can respond to this entry and I will show you the where, when and how of the who. They are all here, all part of what makes this American culture. So I picked a representative of what some people call basic American, heartland, fly-over country, bland Heinz 57 variety, and so on. I picked it for 2 reasons: I am studying Norwegian and cannot be accused of any hostile intent in picking this term and Garrison Keilor on Prairie Home Companion does a wonderful job of capturing this upper-mid west culture.
An example of how we absorb and then “disappear” other cultures among the streams that flow into the Norwegian culture is the comment made by a scholar of African-American studies when he wrote, “We have been looking in the wrong place for survivals of African culture in this country, among African-Americans; we should have been looking in the general American culture”, his point being that we in this country have had almost 400 years to absorb elements of African culture brought by the slaves.
Let me give some examples I encountered. Fortunately, I had read some books, most notably Melville Herskovits’ seminal and magisterial Myth of the Negro Past, just before or at the time of my introduction to the African-American community. Younger people (under the age of 50) may be skeptical as to just how segregated American society was at that time, but if you have such doubts, respond to this entry and I will elucidate the situation through numerous personal accounts. Since I grew up in my earliest years in a small town in Ohio, I recommend to you Our Kids by Robert Putnam, a classmate of mine who went on to become a famous sociologist and brought his research team back to Port Clinton and describes the town of the 50s in the initial chapters.
So I stepped into a Black church and was overwhelmed by a scene straight out of my reading. I had no idea….. and I have no idea why I had no idea. Why would these survivals of African culture not be apparent among people who were from the South and had little contact with Whites over the generations. I plunged into understanding what I was seeing and hearing, hearing being so prominent b/c it is in the music and associated behaviors that African culture has most survived. Here are two examples of what I mean, one academic and one personal observation. I am reading just today a book called Music of West Africa by Ruth Stone. As an ethnomusicologist, Stone is well-placed to study an African culture b/c her parents moved her there (probably missionaries) when she was 3 and she didn’t leave the Kpelle region of Liberia until she started college – about ======= she knows the culture and language and music and can speak as a participant observer in a very deep sense. She writes about the way music events and performances occur and how the society is structured.
Scholars of African-American life have emphasized the role of societies with the culture: burial societies, fraternal orders, church-based functional groups, entertainment/recreational clubs, music and performance organizations, and so on. As with funerals, we encounter skepticism from outsiders. When we say the funeral occupies a place of major importance in the life cycle, outsiders may quibble and point to the fact that they attend funerals, too. But when you attend a funeral among people of the African diaspora, you soon realize you are on a different plane. Anyone with the patience to read studies and accounts of funereal customs among African-Americans can educated themselves or, more fun, attend funerals.
BTW, a major and enlightening book on how church services generally go among African-American working class people is Old Ship of Zion by Walter Pitts. Further reading in the cultures of the African Diaspora will reveal similar social organization among those communities, e.g. the cabildos of Cuba, the samba clubs of Brazil, the coumbite in Haiti, and so forth. Masonic lodges, Elks clubs, veterans’ organizations, burial societies, etc. may or may not have analogs in Norwegian culture but they take on a certain character in Black culture, more salient, more central.
My own experience at dances and parties revealed another African trait. One thing herskovits points out early in his book is the phenomenon of masking wherein the African trait is masked as a trait of the dominant culture, the most famous being the taking of Catholic saints as the persona of African gods; you think they are praying to Saint Barbara or Saint Patrick and find Shango and Damballah present in the ceremony. In Norwegian dancing, couples dance together and there is no overt competition; in African-American culture, the dancing starts out that way but eventually, if the music is “good” aka hot, people break out and being dancing individually and then challenge each other, what is called “calling out”. To show how much hip-hop, jazz, rock and roll and even gospel have penetrated Norwegian culture, I once watch a performance at my school’s talent show. The Black kids came out and formed a very African circle and, only boys, began dancing in a challenging and aggressive manner. Suddenly the stage manager, a White kid, jumped into the circle and began some very creditable dancing.
This sort of thing has been going on for several centuries now: African culture traits are masked as something from the dominant culture but shine through and eventually get adopted by American culture, including the Norwegian. I noticed in the above-mentioned church that songs started out in a pretty conventional manner but soon took on a hot character, i.e. hot rhythm, not vocals, hot call and response, and a lessening of melodic instruments and heightening of percussion, be it foot stomping, hand clapping, tambourine banging, full drum kit, piano pounding, until we had what seemed an almost totally African performance. You can hear this in a lot of jazz pieces where it starts out conventionally but slides into repetitive figures that interlock with other figures until a dense web of rhythms emerges. Ruth Stone writes in the Garland Handbook of African Music of which she is editor and author of this quote on p.17: “Kpelle musicians and audiences find the fracturing and recombining of sound to be the highest form of music making.” That is to say, what jazz musicians do to standards, what a Charlie Parker solo is.

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